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Behind the ‘Squid Game’ Phenomenon
A look at the economics, politics and culture behind the wildly popular Korean dystopian thriller
By Alison Roth
Have you binged Squid Game yet? If not, you’re one of the few.
As of late October, the South Korean thriller has emerged as the most-watched show of all time on streaming service Netflix, topping its charts in more than 90 countries. Squid Game has captivated audiences in all corners of the world, even though most of the show’s viewers doesn’t speak Korean and are watching the drama using subtitles or dubbed audio.
Squid Game follows a group of cash-strapped adults who accept a mysterious invitation to compete in children's games for the chance to win unthinkable sums of money. As you might imagine from the winner-takes-all contest – and this is all we can say without dropping any spoilers – it doesn’t end well for most of the contestants.
But Squid Game isn’t pure entertainment; it’s a parable for many pressing issues in Korea and around the world. While we can’t wake you up from your Squid Game-related night terrors, we can help break down some of what’s behind the phenomenon. If you’re looking to go down the Squid Game rabbit hole using authoritative research sources, read on.
South Koreans are facing a personal debt crisis
The contestants featured in Squid Game are hopelessly in debt. The show’s main character, Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae), has lost his marriage, his stability, and is about to lose custody of his young daughter due to his debt and gambling addiction. With the feeling that he has no better way out, he consents to playing the game.
Debt crushes people almost everywhere, but in South Korea, it’s a massive and growing nightmare for many. As reported in The Guardian, household debt in South Korea has risen in recent years and is now equivalent to more than 100% of gross domestic product (GDP) – a level not seen elsewhere in Asia.
“Indebtedness has gone hand in hand with a dramatically widening income gap, exacerbated by rising youth unemployment and property prices in big cities beyond the means of most ordinary workers…as Squid Game illustrates, a sudden redundancy, a bad investment or simply a run of bad luck can force people to turn to high-risk lenders just to keep their heads above water,” says the article.
And for many in South Korea, the crisis hard and fast during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elements of Korean culture featured in the show are real
In the series’ third episode – “The Man with the Umbrella” – contestants are forced to cut precise shapes out of a sugary, candy-like confection. The candy-cutting game, called Dalgona, has inspired people around the world to try making it on their own stoves. But while not an actual prop in a life-or-death game, Dalgona is real. The episode was inspired by creator Hwang Dong-hyuk from his childhood in Seoul. The prize for the participant who managed to make the shape without breaking it was another dalgona.
Other childhood games, traditions, foods and elements of culture featured in the show are also inspired by real themes and events, including Ddakji-flipping challenge featured in the first and last episode.
North Korea is using Squid Game to bash capitalism
As you might imagine, North Korea, governed by its home-grown brand of Communism called juche (pronounced joochay), is a key topic on the show. Supporting character Kang Sae-byeok (played by Jung Ho-yeon) enters the contest as a defector from North Korea and desperately needs cash to bring her parents across the border.
This hasn’t escaped North Korea, whose leadership is using the show’s dystopia and violence to warn its people about the dangers of capitalism, says the Korea Times.
“[North Korea] said the drama makes people realize the sad realities of South Korean society where people are driven into a fierce dehumanizing competition,” the article said. “Describing the rules of the game in the drama where only the final winner survives, it said, ‘The drama brings fury toward the society where those in power rule tyrannically, the unfair society where people without money are treated like chess pieces moved around by the rich.’”
Politicians are referencing Squid Game in their campaigns
Inequality between the rich and the poor, or the haves and the have-nots, is also a major theme threaded through the drama (again, we’re avoiding spoilers), says Joan McDonald in this video. With a South Korean presidential election looming in March 2022, even candidates are using the show to boost their campaign platforms.
Lee Jae-Myung, the front-runner representing Korea’s Democratic Party, referenced Squid Game to criticize the wealthy in a country where the average annual income is about $32,000, says the Washington Post. But conservative candidate Hong Joon-pyo, as well as populist leader Huh Kyung-young, have also referenced Squid Game in their election rhetoric.
“Squid Game is representative of the mindset of Korean people today,” the Post quoted Huh. “Ostracization, devastation, precarity, enemies on every side. [The contestants] are in a position where they have no way out, and the last option seems to be 'Squid Game.”
Sources, all accessed via ProQuest.com:
- Kim, N., & McCurry, J. (2021). Squid Game lays bare South Korea’s real-life personal debt crisis.
- How viewers identify with the messages of inequality in 'Squid Game' (2021).
- Seung-woo, K. (2021). North Korea continues slamming 'Squid Game'.
- Jeong, A., & Moon, G. (2021). ‘Squid game’ is no. 1 on Netflix and South Koreans are using the survival drama to talk about inequality.
- Translated by Content Engine, L.L.C. (2021). South Korean candy maker boosts sales thanks to 'the squid game.’